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Didaskaleinophobia (Fear of Going to School), more commonly known as School Phobia, is a mental health disability that is school-induced. Students with school phobia experience extreme anxiety, phobia, and panic attacks on school nights and days, in sleeping, waking up, leaving the house, entering the school building, and staying at school.

School phobia and chronic absenteeism are widespread issues. Despite international research since the 1930s, we have not come very far in our awareness, understanding, and school-based responses to school phobia, avoidance, and absenteeism as a mental health disability that needs to be understood, supported, and accommodated.  The longer a student is absent from school, the more entrenched the pattern of avoidance and absenteeism becomes. Chronic absenteeism increases suicide risk factors. For that reason, the need for effective and comprehensive school-based action is urgent. The possible negative outcomes for a student with school phobia who is not able to access or manage an education are numerous.

Our study highlights the experiences of students with mental health disabilities, including school phobia, and their families, in the education system. We hope that the findings of this quantitative and qualitative survey will inform practice and policy by contributing an important lived experience account of school phobia and educational loss and exclusion.  Studies in this area have been inconclusive in their findings, have operated from a medical, and not a social model of disability, and have wrongly placed the blame for school phobia on the parents (“educational neglect”, separation attachment) and on students with school phobia (“truancy”, separation anxiety, school refusal).  We hope that our survey findings will provide awareness, understanding, compassion, and action to improve the support and outcomes for school phobic students and their families.

We hope that this report will provide more awareness of school phobia as a mental health disability that must be accommodated. In addition, we hope that schools will recognize the need for training on how to support students with school phobia and will introduce comprehensive school-based approaches.

Guidelines, policies, legislation, and procedures for schools, as well as provisions for students with school phobia, including needs-based publicly funded educational accommodations, are issues that need to be addressed system-wide.

We hope that this report will inspire educational change that supports the lives, health, education, and future of young people in Canada. It is time for awareness and comprehensive action.

Empty Desks in Schools: where are students with School Phobia Disorder and Mental Health Disabilities?
Photocredit: @ivalex


Youth Mental Health Canada conducted a survey across the country in 2019 and 2020 focusing on students’ experiences with school phobia which resulted in their avoidance of school and chronic absenteeism from school.

Our goal is to build awareness of school phobia and to provide comprehensive action plans to support students with mental health disabilities who have difficulty in accessing and managing an education via conventional means.

We recognize the urgency: chronic youth mental health challenges and youth suicide are public health crises in Canada.

Some Youth Mental Health Facts in Canada:

  • Canada’s youth suicide rate is the third highest in the industrialized world. (1)
  • After accidents, suicide is the second leading cause of death for people aged 15-24. (2)
  • An estimated 1.2 million children and youth in Canada are affected by mental illness—yet less than 20 per cent will receive appropriate treatment. By age 25, approximately 20 per cent of Canadians will have developed a mental illness. Youth who are engaged in child and adolescent mental health services, and who require continued services, are also often not well supported as they prepare to enter the adult mental health system. (3)
  • 70% of mental health problems have their onset during childhood or adolescence. (4)
  • More than 5,800 Canadian children and youth died by suicide in the 13-year period between 2005 and 2018: that is approximately 446 young people who died by suicide every year from every region except Nunavut (5). Deaths are only reported if the intent is clear. (5)

We hope that robust research with quantitative and qualitative evidence on issues of school phobia and chronic absenteeism in Canada can be an important guiding tenet for awareness, support, and change.

Representing the experiences of over 519 families with youth aged 10 years old and up, it is the only survey of school phobia, avoidance and chronic absenteeism in Canada ever conducted. This wealth of data highlights the experiences of young people and their families and demonstrates how important needs-based inclusion and active participation in education is to their health and wellness.

Given the lack of data nationwide and conclusive data internationally, we hope this report will provide valuable insights that can be used by researchers, policymakers, and the many organizations and schools who access the resources, information, research, and services of Youth Mental Health Canada to better meet the needs of young people everywhere.

Our hope is that youth will hear us loud and clear: that their learning and health needs are important, that their lives are valuable, and that they are never alone. If you are a young person, please know that Youth Mental Health Canada is here to support you 24/7.

Our hope is also that all people who care about young people will examine the effects of exclusion that have increased suicide risk factors and resulted in chronic absenteeism at school and start to explore the protective factors and individualized needs-based learning models that we can create to better support students.

Sheryl Boswell, Founder & Executive Director


The survey was first available online in 2019. Most respondents completed the survey in 2019 and 2020.


References for Youth Mental Health Statistics:

  1. Canadian Mental Health Association. Fast Facts About Mental Illness.
  1. Statistics Canada (2018). Deaths and age-specific mortality rates, by selected grouped causes, Canada, 2016.  Table: 13-10-0392-01
  1. Mental Health Commission of Canada|
  1. Government of Canada (2006). The human face of mental health and mental illness in Canada. Ottawa: Minister of Public Works and Government Services Canada.
  1. Toronto Star/Ryerson School of Journalism Investigation from coroner’s offices in all provinces and territories except Nunavut:
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